The Yellow Wallpaper (Scenes 1-3)

An adaptation of the classic gothic short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. While this will be a full-length play when I'm done with it, I only have the first 3 scenes at this time.

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

By Jeff Davis

 

Adapted from the Short Story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

 

CHARACTERS

 

JANE PERKINS, a woman in her mid twenties to mid thirties

JOHN PERKINS, her husband.  Mid twenties to early forties

 

SETTING

A large New England mansion.  1892.

SCENE 1

A small, upstairs room of a Colonial mansion in New England.  1892.  Late afternoon.

The room is rather plain and cramped.  There’s a door downstage.  The room is furnished with a single-size four poster bed, a nightstand with a small gas lamp, a coat rack, a dressing screen, a dresser with a locked top drawer, and a small desk.  The key to the dresser lays on the nightstand.

The walls are covered in yellow wallpaper, quite faded, but still yellow.  The paper has a Victorian pattern to it, and in the pattern you can make out—should you choose to look hard enough or perhaps choose to see them—the nondescript faces and outlines of spectral figures.

There is a single window in each of the left, right, and upstage walls.  The windows are high up and have bars on the outside.  When light shines through the windows just right, the bars cast shadows on the floor, giving the room an almost jail cell-like feel.  The view from the windows is further obstructed by the branches of trees.  Overall, the room is quite ominous.

There’s a small strip of empty space downstage of the room which extends completely from stage left to stage right.  This space will be used from time to time throughout the play for any scenes that do not take place in the room (e.g. a hallway, a parlor, etc).

In darkness, we hear the sounds of footsteps climbing a set of creaky stairs.

As the lights come up, the door creaks open and JOHN enters, carrying a small suitcase.  He wears a well-tailored Victorian era suit and a top hat. 

He sets the suitcase on the bed, then removes his hat and places it on the bed as well.

 

JOHN

Here we are, dear.

JANE enters.  She wears a black dress and a bonnet.  She speaks in a pleasant tone that her stone-faced veneer doesn’t completely match.

JANE

Yes, here we are.

She removes her bonnet and hangs it on the coat rack.  Her hair, while not messy, isn’t impeccably kept. 

JOHN

Don’t look so dour, Jane.  I’m sure you’ll love it here.

JANE

If I’m dour, then I suppose I match our surroundings.

JOHN

Come now.  This house is magnificent. 

JANE

Magnificent? I find it dull and sad.

JOHN

Oh, it’s not dull at all!  The landlord told me that it dates to before the Revolution.  It was built in 1762 by a merchant by the name of...William Gilman, I believe is what I was told.  Allegedly Gilman’s eldest son fought in the Revolutionary War, something Gilman greatly supported.

JANE

(briefly excited)

Imagine that! (a beat).  And did he survive the war?

JOHN

Yes, he did.  The son—named David after the great grandfather, I think—made it out of the war without a scratch on him, came back home, and married his sweetheart.

JANE

What was her name?

JOHN

Who knows.  No one in town remembers.  I’m sorry, dear.  So David comes home, marries his sweetheart—

JANE

His unnamed sweetheart—

JOHN

Yes.  And they had a large family.  Two sons and two daughters.  The eldest son inherited the house when he married, and I believe it was his grandson who followed in the footsteps of David by fighting in the Civil War.

JANE

And did he—

JOHN

No, he didn’t survive.  However, his free-spirited wife was instrumental in finding work for escaped slaves.  She actually housed many of the women here until they were self-sufficient or married off.

JANE

How wonderful!  And what was the wife’s name.

JOHN

No one in town could remember that, either.

JANE

They’d remember if such things were done by a man.  (A beat).  So what’s happened to the Gilman family?

JOHN

I beg your pardon?

JANE

What happened to the family?

JOHN

(placating her)

Oh, that’s none of your concern.

JANE

I’m only curious.  If we’re to spend the summer here in a house that’s been passed down from generation to generation, then I’m curious to know what happened to the last one.  Why are they no longer here in their family’s estate?

JOHN

Well, I was told that the last resident was a widow.  Charlotte was her name, I believe.  She was a vivacious woman and a prominent member of the local community.  Everyone loved her, so I’m told.  She was kind to everyone, and beautiful, and smart.  But when her husband died, something changed.  She stopped visiting the town and stayed in this house, never going out, preferring to live in complete isolation.  And she lived here in that way until—

JANE

Until her death?

JOHN

Until her suicide.

JANE

How awful.  And she died childless?

JOHN

Yes.  Some in the town think that she may have been pregnant before the death of her husband, but she lost the child shortly after his death, and—

JANE

And the loss was just too great.

JOHN

I suppose so, yes.

The story hits Jane hard.

JANE

Poor Charlotte.

JOHN

Yes.  Poor Charlotte.  Because of her tragedy, people have stayed away from this house.  I guess no one wants to live in what was the home of Charlotte Gilman and be reminded of her tale.  Some even think it’s haunted.  It’s been empty for ten years, which I suppose is why the landlord let it to us at a bargain.

JANE

I’m sure you’re right.

(A beat)

John, do you suppose the house is haunted?

JOHN

(Laughing) Don’t be silly.  There’s no such thing as ghosts.  It’s all a bunch of superstition.

JANE

Don’t laugh at me.  This has all the makings of a great ghost story.  A broken heart.  A suicide.  A queer, neglected estate.  There’s something Gothic in it, don’t you think?

JOHN

No, I don’t.

JANE

Of course you don’t.  You’re practical in the extreme.

JOHN

I have been called practical, but never extreme.

JANE

You have no patience with faith, an intense aversion to superstition, and you scoff openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen or put down in figures.  I call that extreme.

JOHN

And what did you expect when you married a physician?

JANE

Maybe that’s why I don’t get well faster.  You don’t believe I’m sick.  You can’t see what I’m feeling in facts or figures.

JOHN

You’re absolutely right.  I know you’re not sick at all.  Nothing is the matter with you but a temporary nervous depression.  It’s a slight hysterical tendency.  Nothing more.

JANE

How can you say that, John?

JOHN

I say it because it’s true.

JANE

(A slight beat) John, I think I’m going mad.

JOHN

You’re not going mad.

JANE

I see him, you know.  Sometimes I catch a glance of him out of the corner of my eye or I hear him crying and run to him but he’s not there.

JOHN

That’s not madness.  That’s grief.  You lost a child.

JANE

We lost a child.

JOHN

Yes.  I’m sorry, dear.  We lost a child.

JANE

Like our new friend, Charlotte.

(A beat)

John, why don’t you miss him too?

JOHN

I do.  I miss him every day.

JANE

Then why aren’t you going mad like me?

JOHN

I…I don’t know.  And you’re not going mad.  If you take your medicines and just rest, you’ll be back to yourself in no time.

JANE

Why couldn’t I have rested at home in Boston?

JOHN

The change of scenery should help you get better sooner.

JANE

Perhaps I could venture out into the town, or at least into the garden from time to time?

JOHN

That’s not a good idea, Jane.  Too much excitement and stimulus will keep you from getting better.  And the town is at least three miles down the road from here.

JANE

But you just said a change of scenery would help.

JOHN

I know, but—

JANE

Well could I at least do a little of my writing, then?

JOHN

Absolutely not.

JANE

But being able to exercise my brain would do me good too, wouldn’t it?

JOHN

On the contrary.  You need to rest.  That’s the only way you’ll get better.

JANE

But—

JOHN

I am your husband and your doctor and I say no.  That’s final.

A beat.

JANE

Very well.

JOHN

And promise me you won’t write in your journal behind my back.

JANE

I promise.

A beat as John evaluates the validity of the promise.

John, you know I don’t even have the thing.  You threw it in the fire.

JOHN

And you didn’t fish it out?

JANE

No!  And even if I did, how could I have brought it here?  You packed all our bags yourself.

John silently accepts her promise.

Well, it is a rather lovely home, don’t you think?

JOHN

Lovely?  Just two minutes ago, you called it dull.

JANE

Well yes, but now that we’ve been here a bit, I’d like to change my mind.

John chuckles.

JANE

It sort of reminds me of those English places you read about, with all the hedges and walls and gates that lock and the separate houses for the gardeners and servants.

An idea strikes her.

John, the gardeners and servants—

JOHN

They’re all gone, Jane.  They’ve been gone for years.  It’s just you and me.

JANE

(Somewhat disappointed at the realization she will have no other company)  I see.  I bet this place was always bustling with life when there were more people here.

JOHN

I’m sure it was.

JANE

And that garden on the other side of the house.  How beautiful is that garden!  Large and shady and full of bordered paths and roses.

A beat.

John, why must we take this room?  Why couldn’t we take one of the rooms over the garden or over that delightful little piazza?

JOHN

Jane, you know my answer.  Those rooms would be far too exciting for you.  You’d never get any rest.

JANE

I could, John.  I swear I could.  I could rest and sleep in there just as well as I can here, but it would be nice to have some fresher air and a nicer view.  And if I do get too excited by the view, which I won’t, you could always close the curtains on the windows so I couldn’t so much as peak outside.

JOHN

The answer is no, Jane.  Please don’t ask me again.  I know what’s best for you.

Jane lashes out.

JANE

Don’t you dare talk to me as if I’m a child, John!  I am your wife!  Our child is dead.

JOHN

Jane, I am sorry if you’re angry, but that’s just your condition.  You never used to be this sensitive.  That’s why we’re here.  That’s why you need your rest.  And that’s why you will listen to me when I say “no.”

Jane slowly sits on the edge of the bed.  She looks as if she’s about to cry.

JANE

I’m sorry, my love.

JOHN

I know this is hard, and I know you’ve been through so much, but you must control yourself.

JANE

I will try, John.  You know I’m trying.

JOHN

Yes, I know.

JANE

And I do wish this view had a nicer view.

JOHN

Yes, but this room will suit you fine.

JANE

Suit me fine?  You’re not staying in this room with me?

JOHN

No.  It would be too cramped and noisy with me in here with you, don’t you think?

JANE

But—

JOHN

There’s another bedroom just next door.  That’s where I’ll be.  And I’ll bring you your meals and make sure you take your medicine.

He looks at his pocket watch.

By the way, it’s been almost an hour.  Time for your tonic.

He opens his medicine bag and pulls out a small bottle, which he hands to her.  She opens it and drinks the entire thing.  It stings.

JANE

Thank you.

JOHN

You’re welcome.

JANE

Thank you for taking care of me.  You’re so careful and loving and attentive.  I feel so horribly ungrateful that I don’t value it more.

JOHN

What kind of husband would I be if I didn’t take care of you?

JANE

You could leave me, you know.  I’m sure most of our friends would expect you to.  Poor John.  His wife gives him a stillborn and then she goes insane.  If you were to put me in an asylum and divorce me, everyone would understand.  You could remarry, perhaps someone younger—

JOHN

Stop it, Jane.  Just stop.  I love you.  I’m never going to leave you.  And you’re not insane.  You will get better, and we can have another child, and we will be blissfully happy.  I’m sure of it.

She kisses his cheek.

JANE

Well, if we do have another child, a nursery like this one would do, I suppose.

JOHN

You think this room was a nursery?

JANE

Don’t you?  The bars on the windows to keep the children safe.  The rings and things in the walls.  The yellow wallpaper suitable for a son or a daughter.  I’m almost certain this room was a nursery first and then a playroom and then finally a gymnasium.

JOHN

You know, you’re probably right.

A thought strikes him.

Are you sure you’ll be alright here?  You know, considering the circumstances.

JANE

I’ll be alright.  Honestly, I will.

She tries to lighten the conversation.

The hardest thing to stomach is that dreadful wallpaper.

JOHN

It’s not that bad.

JANE

It’s hideous.  And it’s peeling.  God, it’s so sprawling and flamboyant.  It’s committing every artistic sin, you know.

JOHN

You know far more about these kinds of things than I.

JANE

It’s so peculiar.  The pattern is simple enough to confuse the eye into following it but pronounced and complex enough to provoke study.  It’s downright irritating!  And those lines.  If you follow them for a bit they curve and twist and then abruptly end by plunging off at outrageous angles.  It’s a mess of contradictions.

Oh!  And that color!  I understand the use of yellow for a nursery, but why this yellow?  It’s ugly…veering tediously close to vulgar.

I bet the children hated it.  Honestly, if Ms. Charlotte Gilman was as wealthy as you say, why didn’t she replace the wallpaper?

JOHN

She probably didn’t want to see the nursery after…

He can’t bring himself to say it.

JANE

Oh.  I guess you’re right.

She sits, clearly reflecting on their child.

JOHN

Are you sure you’ll be alright in here?

JANE

I’m sure.  I can’t live my life ignoring all reminders of him.

JOHN

Very well.

He kisses her forehead.

Why don’t you get undressed into your nightgown?  It’s been quite a long day for you.  Get undressed and I’ll be up with your dinner in a moment.

JANE

Yes, dear.

He opens the door.  Just as he’s about to go out—

JANE

John?

He turns. 

I love you, too, you know.

JOHN

I know.  I’ll be back in a flash.

JANE

Alright.

John exits.  Jane examines the room, particularly the wallpaper, a bit more.  When she’s either satisfied or bored, she dims the gas lamp a bit and then starts undressing.  She removes her dress, then her over petticoat, then her under petticoat, and then her corset.  As she undoes her corset, a small, black, leather-bound journal falls to the floor.  It’s clearly been burned in a fire and is singed around the edges.

She goes to the coatrack and pulls a pen out of her bonnet.

With journal and pen in hand, a smile crosses Jane’s lips.  She sets the journal and pen down on the nightstand, then goes to the suitcase, and pulls out her nightgown.  She goes behind the dressing screen and returns dressed in the nightgown.  John knocks at the door.

JOHN (offstage)

Darling, are you dressed?

Jane momentarily panics about what to do with the journal and pen.

JANE

Not quite.

She notices the key sitting on the nightstand, near the journal.  She picks up the key, then searches the room for the lock.  She notices the locked drawer in the dresser, opens it with the key, and thrusts the journal and pen inside.  She locks the drawer, then goes to open the door.

JANE

Alright.  You may enter.

Blackout.

 

SCENE 2

The next morning.

Jane sits at the desk, writing in her journal.  She narrates as she writes.

JANE

May 29th, 1892. 

Dearest Friend,

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.  A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house.

There is something queer about it, haunted or not. John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. John is a physician, so I take phosphates and tonics and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?

I will let it alone and talk about the house. I don't like my room a bit. I wanted one downstairs, but John would not hear of it. So I took the nursery at the top of the house. It is a small room, but quite airy.  There’s air and sunshine galore.

But the wallpaper.  I never saw a worse paper in my life. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the sunlight. It is a dull orange in some places, a sickly Sulphur tint in others. I will hate it if I had to live in this room long.

We hear the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.

JANE (continued)

There comes John, and I must put this away--he hates to have me write a word.

There’s a knock at the door.

JOHN (offstage)

Darling, are you awake?

JANE

Yes.  Just a moment.

She locks the journal away and hides the key under her pillow, then opens the door.  John’s carrying a tray with a teapot and two teacups, sugar, milk, and a bottle of Jane’s medicine.

JOHN

Good morning, darling.

JANE

Good morning, dear.

He kisses her forehead.

JOHN

I have your medicine, and I figured you’d want a cup of tea this morning.

JANE

Thank you, John.

He pours Jane’s medicine into a teaspoon and administers it to her.  He pours her a cup of tea, hands it to her.  She sips it.

JANE (continued)

That certainly helps with the aftertaste.

John pours himself a cup and doctors it with two lumps of sugar.

JANE (continued)

Darling, can you pass the sugar?

JOHN

I’m sorry, but we don’t want to get you agitated.  No sugar.  Doctor’s orders.

JANE

Under her breath.

Your orders.

It’s clear John hears her, but he says nothing.  They sit in silence and sip their coffee for a moment.

JOHN

If you don’t mind, I’d like to get started with your daily evaluation.

JANE

As you wish.

John retrieves a doctor’s journal and a pen from his coat pocket and takes notes through the following.

JOHN

Did you sleep well last night?

JANE

As well as to be expected for my first night in a strange house.

JOHN

Did you have any trouble falling asleep?

JANE

I…I honestly don’t remember.

He senses she’s lying.  He studies her eyes.

JOHN

Judging by the dark circles under your eyes, I’m guessing you had a rough night.

JANE

I guess I did.

JOHN

And did you wake up in the middle of the night?

JANE

Maybe once or twice, I think.

JOHN

I’ll give you a bit of morphine tonight then to help you sleep.

JANE

Please, John, not the morphine.  You know I have the strangest dreams—

JOHN

Yes, but you sleep.  You rest, and that’s exactly what you need right now.

Jane opens her mouth to say something, but she decides against it.

JOHN (continued)

How do you feel today?

JANE

Tired, but no more or less than usual. (A beat) Numb.

JOHN

Good!  That means the medicine is working.  And how is your appetite this morning?

JANE

I don’t really have much of an appetite at all this morning, I’m afraid.

JOHN

I’ll give you about an hour or so, but you know you must eat something.

JANE

I know.

John approaches Jane, puts his fingers on the side of her throat and looks at his watch to get her pulse.  After a few seconds:

JOHN

Pulse is a bit slow, but steady and without change from yesterday.

He then checks her lymph nodes in her neck.

JOHN (continued)

No swelling in the lymph nodes.

He takes a stethoscope out of his coat and listens to her lungs.

JOHN (continued)

Breathing is normal.   Say “ah.”

JANE

Aaaaaahhhhh.

John peers down her throat.

JOHN

Throat appears healthy.  (As he writes his final notes in his journal) Well, aside from your fatigue and exhaustion, you’re a perfectly healthy woman, Jane.

JANE

I suppose that means the treatment’s working.  Maybe that means we’ll be home soon, or at the very least I could go out to the garden or write or—

JOHN

Now now now.  Not quite so fast.  Things still take time.  But yes, we should both be encouraged.

Jane is a bit deflated.

JOHN (continued)

Now why don’t you enjoy your tea and rest for a bit.  I’ll be up in an hour with a light breakfast for you, and then I’ll be going into town for a while.

JANE

Into town?  What for?

JOHN

I have some matters to attend to.

JANE

Can I come, too?  I don’t want to be alone here.

JOHN

You know you can’t.  And besides, these are matters that I need to attend to alone.

JANE

Don’t lie to me, John.  You don’t have any business in town.  We’ve just gotten here.  You know nothing and no one in that town.  You just want fresh air and sunshine and freedom from this house, just like I do.

JOHN

Given your state of exhaustion, I doubt you have the energy to continue this argument, and frankly neither do I.  But if you rest and behave, perhaps I’ll bring something back for you.

JANE

A book!  Or a needle and thread.  I’d love something to occupy my time while—

JOHN

The only thing that should occupy your time is rest.  How about I bring you back some strawberries from the marketplace?  I know you love strawberries.

JANE

I guess that will do. (A beat) John, could you do one more thing for me?

JOHN

What is it?

JANE

Can you tear down this wallpaper?

JOHN

(Laughs) Why should I tear it down?

JANE

Darling, look at it.  It’s hideous.  (She finds an angle) And I think it’s distracting me from my rest.

JOHN

I’ll think about it, but I’m not promising anything.  Now please, rest.  I’ll be back in a while with some breakfast.

He kisses her forehead again.

JOHN

I love you.

JANE

I know.

John exits, leaving the tray.  Jane sits, sipping her tea.  It’s obvious she’s not completely satisfied with the taste.  After a moment, she notices the tray that’s been left behind and the sugar on the tray.  She drops one lump of sugar into her tea, then another, and after a pause, a third.  She sips and smiles.

Blackout.

 

SCENE 3

Two weeks later.  Night.

Jane sits at the desk, writing in her journal.

JANE

June 10th, 1892. 

Dearest Friend,

We have been here two weeks, and I haven’t felt like writing before, since that first day.  John went to bed hours ago, and I am up in this atrocious nursery with nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength.

John is often away all day, and even some nights when he needs to visit patients back home in Boston.  I ask him not to leave me here, alone, overnight, but he says some of his cases are serious.

I am glad my case is not serious.  Still, these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.  John does not know how much I really suffer.  He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him, being the man of reason that he is.

I do wish to get better, and I know as his wife and his patient, I must do as he commands, but I do wish that I could write.  (A beat)  Yes, I know I’m writing now, but I wish to write stories again.  I wish to be the woman I once was, who wasn’t afraid to put pen to paper, to speak her mind.  When publishers compare you to writers like Mary Shelley, naturally you want to keep writing, to keep creating, and to do it openly, not just when your husband isn’t looking.

I think John has always been intimidated by a woman with a brain.  I think he likes my writing, but he never liked the idea of my writing.  He never liked the idea of his wife being paid even a tiny sum for something she had done without him.  Something she had done all on her own.  I think part of him always wanted me to be a wife and mother, not an equal.  Perhaps this treatment is really designed to keep me from writing forever.  Perhaps the aim is to beat me into submission and to mold me into the perfect wife he always wanted.  After all, I have no recollection as to what caused my ailment in the first place.  Perhaps nothing is wrong with me at all.  Perhaps the treatment is the disease.  Though if that were true, I doubt my exhaustion would feel so real.

Ah well.  Again, what is one to do?  It appears all I can do is play John’s game and try to get better.  I’m sure when I’m better, I’ll write my stories again, with or without John’s blessing.  This house and the story of Ms. Charlotte certainly have planted the seed of a ghost story within my head.

Yours,

Jane.

She closes the journal, locks it in the dresser, turns down the gas lamp completely, and climbs into bed.

As soon as her head hits the pillow, there’s a sound of creaking wood.  Jane springs up, startled, then lays down her head once more.

A few moments in silence and near blackness.

We now hear a faint tapping sound, which seems to be coming from inside one of the walls.

Jane hears it too, and she slowly gets out of bed.

As soon as her feet touch the floor, the sound stops.  The figure of a woman slowly makes its way across the wall.  She’s peaceful, ethereal, but mysterious.  While she’s very shadow-like, we can make out some of her features, particularly her face.  She’s not quite shadow and not quite ghost.  Jane walks towards the figure, and for a few moments, Jane and the figure stare at each other in silence.

Jane steps closer and puts her hand on the wall, near the figure.  The figure shrieks.

Jane runs to the gas lamp, and as soon as there’s light, the figure disappears and the shrieking stops.

Jane, breathless, stares at the wall, dumbfounded.

Fade to Blackout.

The End

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